Erin K. O’Shea, whose pathbreaking research has given her fellow scientists unprecedented glimpses into the full complement of proteins at work in living organisms, has been named professor of molecular and cellular biology and co-director of the Bauer Center for Genomics Research at Harvard University, effective Aug. 1, 2005.
A researcher whose cross-disciplinary study of gene regulation has brought acclaim in the fields of proteomics and cell and systems biology, O’Shea is currently professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She is also an assistant investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
“Erin O’Shea is a world leader in studies of gene regulation, and she will enrich greatly the scope of our teaching and the depth of our research,” said William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. “She is an original thinker whose work addresses fundamental questions in biology. I welcome Professor O’Shea’s commitment to undergraduate education and I am confident that she will contribute broadly to University life.”
O’Shea will be integral to Harvard’s systems biology efforts on both sides of the Charles River. With her scientific leadership, she will build systems biology in FAS and establish important connections across the full spectrum of the sciences.
“Erin O’Shea is a terrific scientist, and will be a valuable addition to our community,” said Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers. “I am confident that she will do great teaching and great research here at Harvard.”
O’Shea and her colleagues have developed powerful and sensitive tools capable of scanning an organism’s entire proteome, or roster of proteins, showing exactly which proteins are active in each cell, when they are active, and to what degree. This work has provided the most comprehensive picture to date of protein activity in the cells of higher organisms, pinpointing precisely the activity of thousands of proteins found in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
O’Shea’s work, described by her peers as “beautiful,” “elegant,” and “fascinating,” has also focused on the broad question of how cells respond to environmental conditions. Specifically, she has used a wide range of biochemical tools to examine how yeast cells scavenge from their environments when faced with a shortage of phosphate. Her comprehensive analysis of the intertwining of environmental phosphate levels and gene expression has produced many important findings, including the realization that the careful control of phosphorylation allows cells to produce qualitatively and quantitatively different responses to differing levels of phosphate starvation.
A native of upstate New York, O’Shea received her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Smith College in 1988. She then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which in 1992 awarded her a Ph.D. in chemistry. O’Shea went on to serve briefly as a Miller Institute for Basic Research Fellow at UCSF and the University of California, Berkeley, before joining the UCSF faculty as an assistant professor in 1993. She became an HHMI assistant investigator in 2000.
O’Shea, 38, was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a highly unusual distinction for such a young individual, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Other honors include a Packard Foundation Fellowship in Science and Engineering, a Presidential Faculty Fellow Award, the ASCB-Promega Early Career Life Sciences Award, the Irving Sigal Young Investigator Award, and the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology.